Yoga is important for many reasons. The physical benefits can be distilled down to flexibility, balance and strength. The focus of this article is flexibility. Yoga however is not limited to its physical benefits. In yoga, the word prana means “life force” or our energy that rules over the five senses and uses the breath to evolve. We are always breathing, but we are not always using the true power of our breath to increase prana. Stress, trauma, or emotional baggage can all limit our ability to deeply feel and use our breath. Developing and deepening our practice of the yogasanas allows us to breathe better, channel our energy, and improve our overall health. As society continues to become more health conscious, yoga is somewhat of a trifecta of wellness. It exercises one’s physical, mental, and spiritual fitness.
No, you don’t need fancy clothes, a 100-degree studio, or the fitness acumen of LeBron James to do yoga. By the way, it’s not just LeBron James, but athletes like Tom Brady and Shaquille O’Neal, too, that attribute their health to a consistent yoga practice. There are seemingly endless reasons to add yoga to your daily routine. Everybody can do yoga because yoga is for every body.
To deepen your practice and explore your limits (rather than strive to get into those pretzel shapes) here are our top 10 daily yoga poses for improving flexibility:
1. Childs pose (Balasana) This is a nourishing pose to gently stretch the lower back, hips, and thighs. Child's pose is certainly a must in the realm of daily yoga postures. Throughout our daily routines, we tend to stress our lower back by reduced activation of our lower abdominals. If your lifestyle requires you to be sedentary for long periods of time, or rather stand for long periods of time, then incorporating this pose as part of your everyday yoga routine will help to release lower back compression.
- Start in a table top position; kneeling on the floor, hands should be directly under the shoulders and knees should be hips-width distance apart.
- Keep the tops of the feet flat on the floor and exhale as you gently begin to push your booty back towards your heels.
- Keep your arms extended and reaching forward. Inhale resting your chest between your thighs, and forehead on the mat.
- Keep the gaze inward and gently shut the eyes, focusing on the breath.
Hold for 30 breaths or longer. To release, use your hands to walk your torso to an upright position sitting back on your heels.
Beginner modification: If you have difficulty sitting back to your heels in this pose, place a padded blanket or light pillow between the back of your thighs and calves. If you have tight hips, you can also keep your knees closer together rather than hips-width distance.
Advanced modification: For a deeper stretch, activate the arms and walk the hands and fingers as far to the left as you can and then repeat on the right side.
Tips for alignment: Typically seen as a resting pose, or a pause between other asanas, it is very useful to release tension in the body. Avoid stressing your head and neck and try inhaling so deeply and fully that you feel your entire back fill with air.
2. Downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) This is a naturally rejuvenating and energizing stretch that opens the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands. Certainly one of yoga’s most widely recognized poses, it may be common, but is deceptively challenging. Incorporated as part of your daily yoga postures, this pose will stretch and strengthen you from head to toe. The back body stretch is unmatched, elongating your spine, hamstrings, and calves. In Yoga this pose is normally done both at the beginning and towards the end of class, with countless times in-between. Engaging with it and finding comfort in it will help you develop your practice. If you have the time, you can repeat this posture several times, and really notice the difference between your first downward dog and your third.
- Start in a table top position, kneeling on the floor. Hands should be directly under the shoulders and knees should be hips-width distance apart.
- Take your hands and place them about one palms print forward from their current position.
- Keep your heels pointed towards the sky and your toes tucked.
- Spread your fingertips wide and press firmly through the palms. Exhale sending your pelvis to the ceiling.
- Send your tailbone away from your back and balance your weight evenly across your hands and feet.
- Let the head and neck hang heavy as you gently try to send your shoulder blades down your back and your heels towards the floor.
Hold for 20 breaths. To release, there are two options: Either gently begin to bend your knees lowering them to the mat and pressing your torso upright to a seated position or walk your hands back to your feet and gently raise your head to come to a standing position.
Beginner modification: You will still get the full benefits of this asana even with slight modifications. Gently bend your knees allowing for a slightly altered A-shape. If your heels are too lifted, you can use a rolled up mat or towel underneath them for support.
Advanced modification: Raise your right leg so that it is parallel with your torso, toes pointed towards the ground pressing through the heel. Hold for five breaths and release back down. Repeat on the left side.
Tips for alignment: External rotation of the arms is foundational in downward dog. When you are fully in the asana, without moving your hands, turn your armpits to face each other. This can feel quite awkward in the beginning, but daily repetition will allow you to perfect this rotation with ease.
3. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana) This asana is a great hip and groin opener and can even help relieve fatigue. Incorporating hip openers as part of your yoga for daily flexibility will counteract stiffness and poor posture. The traditional school of thought for yoga sees the hips as the storage area in the body for negative emotions and pent-up feelings. Hip-openers will improve your overall range of motion and perhaps help to provide more emotional clarity over time.
How to do this asana:
- Find yourself in an upright seated position with your legs straight out in front of you.
- Roll your shoulder blades down your back and tighten your core sending belly button to spine.
- Gently bring the legs in so that the bottoms of the feet touch.
- Use your hands to hold the feet and gently try keeping them pressed together.
- Use the strength of your thighs to send your knees down toward the mat.
Hold for 25 breaths. To release, gently let go of the feet and they will likely butterfly open. Send the legs straight out in front of you and gently shake them out.
Beginner modification: Fold two blankets and put one under each outer thigh for support. You can make the blankets thinner as your flexibility increases. If your hips are particularly tight, place a folded blanket under your booty to raise your seat. If you need more of a lift, feel free to use as much as you need such as a stool.
Advanced modification: Keeping your feet together, exhale sending the torso forward between the hip joints. You can use your elbows or forearms to press gently against the inner thighs.
Tips for alignment: It is important to keep an upright, supported posture during this pose. Don’t force your knees to the ground or press on them while in this pose.
4. Eagle Pose - arms only (Garudasana) There are many variations of Garudasana, or Eagle Pose, but for our yogasana daily flexibility routine we will try the seated arms only option. It is important to focus on the arms because there are many yoga poses that involve them but few that focus on flexibility rather than strength. This is part of my daily yoga routine because it is the best of both worlds, a twist and a shoulder opener. We tend to carry tension in our shoulders, that can lead to fatigue and even pain. Twists surprisingly help us find ease and comfort, even unwinding the mind. This will loosen your shoulder blades and sacrum, and prevent those knots we sometimes get from hunching over a desk all day. This also tends to be a more intense stretch.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position (I personally prefer my legs in pretzel shape).
- Send belly button to spine tightening the core and bring arms out wide to a T shape.
- Cross your arms (left on top) wrapping them around you like you are giving yourself a big hug.
- With your left elbow crossed over your right elbow, bring the palms together.
- Raise your elbows so that the are in line with your shoulders.
Hold for 15 breaths and then repeat with the right arm on top. To release this pose, gently release the palms and unwind the arms. Shake out the shoulders before repeating on the opposite side.
Beginner modification: Cross your arms and give yourself a big hug. If your fingertips don’t reach the inside of your scapula, then hold the pose there. Once you come in to eagle arms, if your palms don’t fully touch, bring the back of the hands together. You will eventually deepen in the pose as you incorporate eagle arms in your yogasana daily routine.
Advanced modification: This modification has a slightly deeper feel than touching your palms together. With the arm that is on the bottom (or underneath) use your finger tips and press on the thumb of the hand on top. The gentle push on the thumb will add depth to the shoulder stretch.
Tips for alignment: There are versions of eagle arms where the elbows are lowered. However, as we are focusing on flexibility with everyday poses, it is important to keep your elbows lifted. If anything feels too deep, use the beginner modifications until your feel comfortable going deeper.
5. Garland Pose (Malasana) This yogasana, Garland Pose, lengthens the hips and opens the groin and lower back. It also elasticizes the knees and ankles. Yoga may have postures that focus on a particular body part, but all of the body works in an interconnected way so that no one part is overworked. As you engage with your own daily yoga practice and particular yogasanas, think of equality amongst the body parts and what you can do to create a rhythm. Find your rhythm in Garland Pose and you might just find increased circulation and improved balance.
- Start at the top of the mat standing, with your arms resting down by your sides.
- Widen your feet to about mats-width distance apart. Toes should be pointing just slightly outward.
- Bend your knees and lower your hips past your knees.
- Bend your torso slightly forward and bring your hands to heart center.
- Begin to press your palms together so that your outer arms press against your inner thighs.
Hold for 10 breaths. To release this pose, exhale and press firmly into the bottoms of the feet coming to stand.
Beginner modification: If your heels don’t quite touch the floor, place a folded mat or blanket underneath of them for support.
Advanced modification: Using the strength of your inner thighs press them along your torso. Keeping your core tight, send your arms straight out and gently begin to press your armpits into your shins. You can also bring your feet in about hips-width distance apart rather than mats-width distance apart for a deeper hip stretch.
Tips for alignment: Keep your feet apart at a distance you feel comfortable with in a squat position.
6. Wide Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana) This is one of my favorite yogasanas of the forward bend family. It’s great for improving flexibility along the spine, hamstrings, and shoulders. As part of your daily routine, Prasarita Padottanasana can also relieve mild backaches. It provides the benefits of a forward fold and an inversion, where it calms the mind and challenges the physical body. The legs must support the body while the neck and head hang heavy, relieved. It asks you to challenge your balance and ease your upper body tension to achieve forward bend harmony. Introspective thinking in yoga comes when we can find the harmony between body parts, and can let our mind be free.
- Start standing facing horizontally and pointing straight ahead. Feet should be hips-width distance apart.
- Gently begin to step your feet apart between 3 or 4 feet (or more depending on your height).
- Strengthen the legs by lifting your thigh muscles off of your knee caps and placing your hands on your hips.
- Hug the inner thighs towards each other, spread your toes wide, and ground the corners of your feet to lift the arches.
- Begin to fold the torso slowly over your legs bringing your hands to the mat, flat if possible, directly under shoulders.
- Folding deeper, begin to bend the elbows bringing your head toward the floor.
Hold for 10-breaths. Repeat once. To release this pose, bring your hands to your hips and gently begin to bring the torso parallel to the floor. Heel-toe the feet in towards each other. Tuck your chin to your chest and gently come up to stand.
Beginner modification: If your hands don’t reach the floor, place your hands on your hips and keep the torso supported parallel to the floor. Widen the feet for an easier bend, but no so much so that you feel unstable.
Advanced modification: If you are able to fold deeply, you can begin to place your forearm gently on the mat rather than your hands.
Tips for alignment: Keep your legs straight but don’t lock out your knees. Gently bend your knees if necessary.
7. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) Bhujangasana, or Cobra Pose, is a backbend that strengthens the spine and stretches the chest, shoulders, and abdominals. It is also beneficial for increasing blood circulation. It’s rejuvenating especially for those that are sitting for most of the day or remain sedentary for any number of reasons. Cobra Pose actually helps us improve our posture, as we use our core to lift us in this asana, the same muscles that support us sitting upright at a desk or dinner table. This upright posture supports high energy levels and improves circulation.
- Begin by lying flat on your stomach with the tops of the feet flat on the floor.
- Position your hands directly under shoulders with your fingers spread wide.
- Hug your elbows in towards the ribs and slide your shoulder blades down your back.
- Press through the hands, tops of the feet, and pubic bone.
- Keeping your lower ribs on the floor gently inhale as you lift yourself up.
- Drawing your heart forward, do not crunch your neck.
Hold the pose for 10 breaths. To release the pose, gently bend the elbows lowering your chest onto the floor. Rest one cheek on the mat.
Beginner modification: If you are very tight, refrain from going into the back bend. Instead, try gently lifting your chest and your hands a few inches off the ground to gauge your flexibility. If you have the flexibility to go a bit deeper, keep your gaze towards the floor.
Advanced modification: If you have the flexibility, you can deepen the bend in this yogasana. Walk the hands a bit forward and straighten your elbows, externally rotate the arms outward. Lift the chest towards the ceiling, gaze towards the ceiling.
Tips for alignment: Keep your core tight in this position. Press your belly button to your spine to protect yourself from pinching your lower back. It is equally important to keep rolling your shoulders down your back, as we have a tendency to scrunch up and lock our elbows.
8. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) This heart opener invites the light in. Bridge Pose stretches the chest, neck, spine and stimulates the abdominal organs. Far too often the stresses of life leave us feeling exhausted. This pose also stimulates the adrenals, and not only gets the creative juices flowing, but can give as an all too needed energy boost for the day. Replace that third espresso shot with a three-part repetition of bridge pose. Breath deeply, and this chest opener helps to remove impurities from the lungs.
- Begin lying flat on your back.
- Bring the feet flat on the floor as close to the booty as possible.
- Exhale pressing your feet into the ground, tightening the glutes and pressing the tailbone upward.
- Keep your thighs parallel and roll your inner thighs in towards each other.
- Knees should be directly above ankles but keep pressing them forward.
- Lift your chin slightly above your chest, begin to roll the shoulder blades towards the center of your back, pushing your chest back towards your chin.
- Clasp the hands underneath the back and press them towards the floor.
Hold for 10 breaths and repeat once. To release this pose, gently lower your tailbone down to the mat.
Beginner modification: If you have trouble supporting the lift of the pelvis, use blocks or a bolster to support you as your strength improves. Keep your arms resting flat on the mat.
Advanced modification: Once in the pose, lift your heels off of the floor and push the tailbone even further to the sky. Gently lower your heels back down to the floor.
Tips for alignment: This is a very active pose. Be sure to continue to roll your inner thighs towards each other, and keep your glutes tight to help you lift.
9. Eye of the Needle (Sucirandhrasana) This is perhaps one of the best daily yoga poses for our hips and considered a gentler variation of Pigeon Pose. It’s also a great hamstring stretch, perfect for post-workout or anyone with tight hips. When we are required to sit for long periods of time, our hip flexors usually tighten up and limit our range of mobility. This yogasana will not only open you up, but also improve your posture and circulation. Sucirandhrasana has varying levels of depth, and you can modify to meet your needs where you are in your practice.
- Start flat on your back with the bottoms of the feet flat on the floor.
- Raise your right knee, and send the heel towards the ceiling.
- Bend your right knee and place the right ankle on the left thigh.
- Flex the foot pressing out through the right heel.
- Lift your left foot off of the floor bringing the thigh in to the torso.
- Exhale threading the right arm through the legs and the left arm around the outer thigh to meet it.
- Clasp the hands and gently pull the left thigh in towards you.
- Continuing to hold the left thigh release the shoulder blades down flat on the mat.
- Your calf should be parallel to the floor as your gently continue to bring left thigh to torso.
Hold for 15 breaths. Repeat on the right side. To release, tuck the chin to chest and begin to release the hold on the left thigh. Let the left foot float flat to the floor. Send both legs straight out and shake them out before repeating on the opposite side.
Beginner modification: If you can’t completely loop your arms around your left thigh, gently stay with your ankle crossed and opposite foot remains on the ground.
Advanced modification: To deepen the stretch, bring the knee of the resting ankle in closer towards your body.
Tips for alignment: Try and keep your low back flat on the mat, pressing your belly button to your spine.
10. Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) Twists are beneficial for so many reasons. Among the reasons, they are extremely cleansing and work to detoxify the body. This yogasana works to stretch the back and glutes, and helps to realign the spine. If you often have back pain, use this pose in your daily yoga routine to work on loosening all of the spinal support muscles. Use a supported version of this pose if you tend to be tight in the hips.
- Begin by lying flat on your mat with your arms out flat in a T-shape and palms flat on the ground.
- Hug your right knee into your chest.
- Place your left hand outside the right thigh and gently bring your right knee across your body.
- Bring your right knee as far to the floor as possible.
- Continue to press on the right knee or release the left arm back in a line with the right arm.
Hold for 10 breaths. Repeat on the opposite side. To release this pose, gently bring the knee back into the chest and release flat down to the floor to meet the opposite leg.
Beginner modification: If the knee remains substantially above the ground while in the twist, use a rolled up mat or towel for support.
Advanced modification: Bringing the bent knee in closer towards the chest will deepen both the twist and the stretch.
Tips for alignment: Always keep both shoulders flat on the mat. This may require that your knee be slightly off the floor but you will still receive all the benefits of this yogasana. If you don’t have enough room, you can cactus the arms rather than have them in a T-shape.
It is a common misconception that you must be flexible to practice yoga. Actually, yoga was not developed with the intention of making one more flexible and It would be unfair to say that the best benefit of yoga is flexibility. Certainly it is one of the most obvious perks, but joins a long list of golden benefits. Since yoga was not created solely for the purpose of making us more limber, it is important to remember that the attitude of flexibility spans across both the body and mind. Physical flexibility however, enables us to be more flexible in the mind. It allows us to open various parts of the body and in turn calm other parts of the mind. Yoga is paramount in enhancing physical flexibility because it elongates the muscles and stretches the connective tissues, both of which promote overall elasticity. It promotes deepness in our meditative states as it removes the physical ailments that often prevent us from introspective thought.
Each of the ten yogasanas we discussed above offers a suggested hold by breath count. You may be used to tutorials that give time in minutes, but instead of staring at your phone or the clock, you should focus on the breath. I’ve suggested longer breath holds because it stimulates deep muscle tissue, critical for achieving and sustaining increased flexibility. It is important to keep in mind that you should modify based on your needs and particular comfort level in any given asana.
Patience with both your body and your mind throughout the process and practice is key. One day it can feel you’ve reached a milestone and another you may be tighter than you remember. Don’t forget that we store much of our stress, trauma, and emotions in various parts of the body (for me- my hips!). It makes sense that as we explore and continue to open up, our bodies may react with stiffness. Remember that flexibility is a journey so trust yours, Trust your journey, for your path and your prana is your own.
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By Brittany Regnar